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The Coroner's Report: Cruisin' For A Bruisin' - With Amon Amarth, Beneath The Buried And Me and the Best and Worst of the Latest Extreme Metal

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Sunday, May 22, 2011 @ 5:45 PM

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It’s usually not a good thing to mix Vikings and passenger ships — especially if you’re one of said passengers. But this January, Swedish warlords Amon Amarthtraveled to Miami to embark aboard a cruise ship with a couple thousand metalheads and more than 20 other bands for the four-day 70,000 Tons of Metal festival/cruise on the Gulf of Mexico — and everyone apparently escaped unscathed.

Indeed, by all accounts, the cruise was, for the most part, good clean fun. Well maybe not so clean, given that it was four days of nonstop metal, alcohol and god knows what else, but the booze and bruise cruise certainly didn’t turn into some voyage of the damned aboard the SS Rape and Pillage, like I’m sure some doubters thought it might.

“It was very cool, it was fun to be able to play on that boat. It was like work and a vacation combined,” Amon Amarthguitarist Johan Söderberg noted on the phone in early March from Sweden, where it still felt like the middle of winter. “It was pretty much like a festival. We played one set on the way to Mexico and one on the way back.”

The Love Boat from Hell featured outdoor and indoor stages and bands that ran the gamut from fellow Viking/pagans Unleashed, Ensiferum and Tyr to power metallers Iced Earth, Saxon and Nevermore, and thrashers Testament, Destruction and Voivod. Joyless Swedish black metallers Marduk even joined the fun in the sun — of which there were plenty of both, according to Söderberg.

“It was sunshine the whole time,” he said. “I think everybody had very much fun. The rest of the time we got to hang out, listen to the other bands and enjoy the sun.”

This was not the first time Amon Amarth had played one of these “metal cruises,” which are quite popular in Europe. But their previous trips were between Sweden and Finland in the late fall, when performing outside isn’t much of an option unless frostbite or hypothermia is your thing. “It’s much nicer to be in the Gulf of Mexico,” Söderberg said. “The weather was much nicer and the boat was much nicer.”

The cruise will probably be the last chance Amon Amarth— rounded out by frontman Johan Hegg, guitarist Olavi Mikkonen, bassist Ted Lundström and drummer Fredrik Andersson — have to chill for some time. The band’s fantastic new album Surtur Rising was issued March 29 and a week later they were back out on the road, opening European shows for Children of Bodom. After that, it was back to the states to headline an “Evening With Amon Amarth” tour where the band are playing two sets a night — the new album in its entirety, then a mixed set of material from their previous seven albums. “I think it was the guy who arranged the tour who first came up with the idea, but we thought it was cool,” Söderberg said of the “Evening With” shows. “We see it like a challenge, for us to try something new. I can imagine that the fans will be excited to hear and see the new album all at once, instead of just a few songs.

“We’ll play it exactly as it is on the album, then take a 15-minute break or something, then do a ordinary set of older songs. It will be maybe two and a half hours in total. There are no support bands. It will just be us, the album will be the support (laughs).”

The tour was relatively short, 19 shows over three-plus weeks in “major markets.” Whether Amon Amarth would do more “Evening With” shows when they came back to the states depended on how the initial tour went — and how the guys, who helped serve as models for cartoon legends Dethklok with their signature helicopter hair-twirling, held up.

“We’re going to see how it feels,” Söderberg said. “We usually play maximum 90 minutes; this is going to be quite a bit more. We’ll see how it goes. It’s something new we want to try, but we also don’t want to wind up crippled or something (laughs). If it feels awesome, we’ll do it again.” Apparently, it felt all right. Amon Amarth announced in mid-May that they were coming back for another run of “Evening With” shows, from Aug. 4-Sept. 3.

“Yes, it is true! We are coming back to tour North America,” the band said in a statement announcing the tour. “The spring tour turned out to be so successful, and we had such a great time playing the double sets each night, that we decided to bring 'An Evening With Amon Amarth' to the rest of the continent, including Canada! We will perform the new album in its entirety, and after that we're doing a revised second set with all the classics as well as some 'wildcards.'”

Surtur Rising offers what we’ve come to expect of Amon Amarth over the last decade — and especially their last three albums, 2004’s Fate Of Norms, 2006’s With Oden On Our Side and 2008’s Twilight Of The Thunder God — titanic, yet melodic death metal coursing with Viking/Nordic lore and warrior spirit, with some subtle differences and sonic tweaks to keep things fresh.

“We always try to do some small thing that we’ve never done before,” Söderberg said. “On this album we used acoustic guitars for the first time on some songs. We’ve also used some sound effects on this album and did much more background orchestral arrangements than we did in the past. If you listen, there is more to the songs than maybe there has been in the past. We wanted have a bigger, more epic sounding album.”

Which fits perfectly with the apocalyptic themes that drive songs like “War Of The Gods” and “Destroyer Of The Universe” — not to mention the flaming sword-wielding giant of Norse mythology who inspired the album’s title, and said songs. “Even though there is a lot of melody throughout the album, we have some really brutal songs on this album and that was where the album came to have the theme of Surtur and how he destroys the whole world in flames,” Söderberg said. “We stick to what we do best. You shouldn’t change too much all at once, I think we’ve all seen what happens when bands do that.”

That “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset has been working just fine for Amon Amarth. The band’s popularity has risen steadily with each album — and each album has, arguably, been that much better that its predecessor. Surtur Rising even cracked the Top 40 in the states, and Amon Amarth’s triple DVD Wrath of the Norsemen from 2006 has been certified Gold here. It’s been much the same in Europe, where the band can command large audiences as a headliner, but are still amenable to opening for Children of Bodom, as mentioned earlier, or Slayer.

“It’s been a slow march up for us, so you don’t really notice it,” Söderberg said “It’s not been a big step up at one time, which I think is good. I think we would rather keep growing slowly and steadily than have things explode all at once. Because once that happens, the only way to go is down.”

A Boatload Of Between The Buried And Me

On the entirely other end of the metal spectrum from Amon Amarth are North Carolina math/prog-metallers Between The Buried And Me - or BTBAM - a band who explore new musical territory each time out, all the while keeping a firm grasp on their brutal metal roots. And for anyone interested in following along, the past couple months have offered ample opportunity, what with the release of a triple CD/DVD best of set from their old label Victory, a three-song mini-album from their new label Metal Blade that offers more than a half-hour of mind-melting new music, and a widely divergent solo album from frontman Tommy Rogers under the Thomas Giles moniker.
The Best Of is basically a cash-grab by Victory, but who could blame them as BTBAM were one of their most popular bands, with 2009’s The Great Misdirect cracking the Top 40. And while so many of these “bests ofs” tend to be half-assed throwaways, Victory at least made this one worth your while. Two CDs, 20 tracks in all, that trace the band’s career all the way back to their 2002 self-titled Lifeforce debut - a live version of “Shevanel Cut a Flip” - and a live DVD. Not bad. And it chronicles BTBAM’s amazing growth from an overly ambitious metalcore troupe to one of the most inventive and musically adept bands in metal, one that effortlessly blends extreme metal with rock, hardcore, jazz and progressive elements without seeming like a bunch of showboating jackoffs. B+

The band’s Metal Blade debut, as evidenced by its title The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues does, however, dangerously straddle that line. Parallax’s three epic tracks meander as you’d expect they might, but do manage to hold things together, sometimes just barely. “Specular Reflection” even kicks off things off with a black metally intro, before throwing a deathcore shitfit and then lapsing into a trippy Dream Theatery jam midway through before letting fly again. “Augment of Rebirth” cuts a similarly topsy-turvy course. The comparatively trim “Lunar Wilderness,” at just 8 minutes, is more straight-forward and “metal,” but not without its digressions. Even at just three songs, Parallax is a lot to digest, so it’s probably just as well that BTBAM cut things off where they do. Much more might have been too much to take. B

Pulse, the second solo album by Rogers - Giles is his middle name - actually beat BTBAM to the Metal Blade punch by a couple months, being issued in early February. And it’s a real departure from BTBAM’s all-over-the-map histrionics. More of an acoustic/electronic rock affair that at times recalls Radiohead, classic Pink Floyd and even Nine Inch Nails, it also showcases his fantastic vocal range, which only occasionally punctuates the lion-esque roar he employs with BTBAM. Pulse is a sedate, occasionally sleepy, effort but makes for an interesting counterpoint to BTBAM’s spasmodics. B-

Sailing The Seas Of Prog-Metal Cheese

And if prog-infused, skull-fucking metal is your thing, there’s plenty more where Between The Buried And Me come from. Houston’s Scale The Summit even dispense with vocals entirely. Their third album The Collective (Prosthetic) is once again an immaculate all-instrumental affair. These guys aren’t mere shred-aholics, opting instead for a sophisticated, jazz-like approach that showcases their obvious chops with understated aplomb, while injecting enough of an undercurrent crunch to keep things from becoming tedious or trite.

On the flipside, the soaring vocal cascade of Dan Tompkins is one of the biggest strengths for England’s Tesseract. When he lets loose, the more expansive sections of their debut One (Century Media) echo Fates Warning, but with more muscle. Adding even more oomph are the jagged, discordant riff barrages that leap out of tracks like “Acceptance - Concealing Fate Part One” - there are six parts all together - and help keep some of the album’s conceptual pretentions in check.

Also concept-based are Maine’s Last Chance To Reason, whose second album Level 2 (Prosthetic) once again explores video game virtual worlds - “Tron” fans take note! Theirs is a more prototypical “prog-metal” where complexity and dexterity take the fore, making for a dizzying journey with frequent outbursts of nimble, flighty keyboards and guitars and occasional hints of death metal. Wild stuff.

Even heavier are L.A.’s The Human Abstract whose third outing Digital Veil (E1 Music), for better or worse, steps up the death metal/metalcore quotient. The widdly-widdly guitars, sing-and-scream vocal gymnastics and stop-start tempos can be a bit much when taken all at once. There’s plenty of impressive bits and pieces here, to be sure, but when it all comes together you get something of a sonic Frankenstein’s monster.

Sweden’s Beardfish are the least metal of the batch here, as their sixth album Mammoth (InsideOut Music) is much more from the old Genesis, King Crimson or Yes school, with lots of organ and guitar interplay, extended mellow jams and warbly vocals. But there’s enough of a hard edge here to make them worth investigating.

New albums from Germany’s Obscura and Canada’s Protest The Hero are also pretty cool, but, spiteful bastard that I am, since I didn’t get promos and had to buy them myself, you’ll have to take my word for it.

However, because I did get an absolute shitload of other promo material over the last couple months, and in keeping with this idiotic nautical theme, I give you...

The Poop Deck

Black Metal

BURZUM – Fallen (Candlelight/Byelobog Productions)
Black metal’s most notorious figure, Varg Vikernes has been a busy little beaver since his release from prison in 2009. Fallen is the second album in just over a year from his one-man “band” Burzum and continues in the primal black metal vein of 2010’s Belus. Ready access to instruments and recording technology, to the extent that he uses it, has allowed Vikernes to move beyond the dark ambient limitations of his prison-bound work. Though still spartan by contemporary standards, Fallen is “higher-fi” than the muffled Belus and has a more dynamic, fleshed-out sound that accentuates Vikernes’ breathy, chant-like vocals and shrill, repetitive wash of guitar. Nevertheless, the deliberate, often monotonous pacing, rough-hewn, icy tone and genuinely sinister air that surrounds Vikernes - he is a convicted killer, after all - make Fallen an uncomfortable listen, to be sure. But it’s also quite captivating, in a eerily hypnotic sort of way. B+

DEMONAZMarch of the Norse(Nuclear Blast)
A decade after acute tendonitis forced him to step down as Immortal’s guitarist - though he continued to write lyrics for them, as well as frontman Abbath’s other band I - DEMONAZ finally conjures up something to, for the most part, call his own. His debut solo album March of the Norsehas a rather familiar ring to it, which should come as no surprise given that Abbath, ex-Immortal drummer Armagedda and Enslaved guitarist Ice Dale - who perform together in I - are the backing musicians here, with DEMONAZ providing the vocals and writing all the songs. Norse takes Immortal’s expansiveness and gives it more of a hard rock footing - though not to the Motorheadish extreme of I’s Between Two Worlds in 2006. Instead, it’s more like a streamlining of Immortal’s In The Heart of Winter from 1999, the first album DEMONAZ did not play on. Crunching riffs are abundant, and the compositions are succinct and direct, riding a mid-tempo groove most of the way through. There is still an inherent “bigness” in the overall sound as a number of subtle touches - the monkish choral backing vocals on “Where Gods Once Rode,” for instance, and Ice Dale’s sweeping guitar asides - join forces with DEMONAZ’s battle-hymn lyrics. But there are no monumental 8-plus minute opuses and March, well, marches along quite nicely. And, while hardly a departure, it is a solid, satisfying outing. B

Death Metal

ANAAL NATHRAKHPassion (Candlelight)
British extremists Anaal Nathrakh dole out another stellar sonic beatdown with their sixth full-length. Passion steers much the same death/black/industrial/grind course of its predecessors, with an auditory assault that is damn near deafening. Wall of sound only begins to describe the cacophony this duo produces - Mick Kenney handles all the instruments and V.I.T.R.I.O.L, aka Dave Hunt of Benediction, does all the screaming. The screeching electronics, shrieking guitars and pummeling percussion come at you in waves, yet somehow retain at least a shred of musicality and songiness. It’s not just noise for noise’s sake, which only makes “Drug-Fucking Armageddon” or “Paragon Pariah” that much more vicious and terrifying. Definitely not for sensitive ears. A-

BORN OF OSIRIS – The Discovery (Sumerian)
Illinois tech-deathsters Born of Osiris offer up a second album of pretty much everything we’ve grown to expect of stuff like this - a dizzying array of riffs and solos, whiplash-inducing time changes, gut-punch breakdowns, progressive flourishes and schizoid vocals that attack from every angle. To their credit, though, BOO are able to stitch it all together into something that makes some sort of sense and is not just a mish-mash of this and that - an unfortunately common tech-death byproduct. There’s even a certain degree of Fear Factory-like catchiness to, say, “Shaping The Masterpiece” and “Dissumilation,” despite their inherent turbulence. The new-agey interludes sprinkled throughout are also a nice touch, giving the listener a chance to catch their bearings before the shitstorm begins anew. B

DEICIDE – To Hell With God (Century Media)
Glen Benton and his minions return with another heaping helping of what they do best - blasphemous death metal that takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. “Empowered By Blasphemy” is the rallying cry here, as the band show plenty of spunk and fury on their 10th studio album - and are less long-winded than on 2008’s Till Death Do Us Part,. Benton’s shoutier vocals are a fiendish twist here, giving the material more power and menace than his usual guttural bark - even though he’s preaching the same anti-Christian gospel. Songs like “Witness of Death” and “Angels of Hell” are sharp, lean and aim for the gut, yet allow enough room for Ralph Santolla’s sleek soloing. Add “Empowered’s” hookiness and “How Can You Call Yourself God’s” wicked black metal flourish and To Hell With God is a somewhat unexpected triumph. B+

THE FAMINE – The Architects of Guilt (Solid State)
When you lose your singer and your studio burns down with all your equipment a month later, it's probably going to piss you off. So it's no mystery why the third album from Dallas-area quartet The Famine sounds so angry and vengeful. “We Are The Wolves,” the awesomely titled “Turner Classic Diaries” and “The New Hell” are a tantrum-like fits of aggression that blend death metal sensibilities with a hardcore delivery. Ex-bassist/now singer Nick Nowell's wolverine vocals are a perfect fit for the band's utter relentlessness, which only occasionally gets tripped up by technical indulgences. And despite it single-mindedness, Guilt's raw fury is compelling throughout. The freaky cover art is a nice touch, too. And yet after it all, The Famine ended up disbanding anyway in April. B+

TRAP THEM – Darker Handcraft (Prosthetic)
Despite hailing from New Hampshire, Trap Them sound awfully Swedish. Old-school Swedish, to be precise. Their buzz-sawing third album recalls vintage Entombed or Dismember with its Sunlight Studio-like rawness and unbridled ferocity. Produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, who knows a thing or two about noise, Darker Handcraft is a wall of gritty guitar grind and clenched-teeth shouting from Ryan McKenney that rarely ebbs. Its dozen songs strike in one- and two-minute bursts. There’s not much room for melody here, but with music this punishing you don’t really miss it. A-

WORMROT – Dirge (Earache)
The underground has been abuzz for the last year or so about this Singapore-based grind trio - especially since they started touring here in recent months. And with their first proper U.S. release, and second album overall - which Earache made available as a free download more than a month before the actual CD was issued - it’s easy to see what the fuss is about. With its 25 songs that blaze by in less than 20 minutes, Dirge harks back to the early days of grind and the first two Napalm Death releases. Indeed, the band pay homage to Napalm’s legendarily terse “You Suffer” with “You Suffer But Why Is It My Problem” in 4 glorious seconds. “Fucking Fierce So What” is a 5 second blip, and the longest song is the “epic” closer “The Final Insult” at all of 1:49. But these guys are definitely no gimmick or fluke, and have obviously studied the ways of grind well from afar. The scraggly, rabbit punchy riffs and herky-jerk, blasting beats are smart, brutal and well-built for maximum intensity. The wise-ass wit of “All Go No Emo,” “Butt Krieg Is Showing” or “Semiconscious Godsize Dumbass” is matched with the more pointed and “Public Display of Infection,” “Spot A Pathetic” or “Plunged Into Illusions.” And even if vocalist Arif’s grasp of English is still a bit tenuous, the authority of his shriek-and-puke vocals is undeniable. B+


BLACKGUARD – Firefight (Victory)
I’ve never been the biggest fan of pagan/battle metal because most of the window-dressing that came with it was often a disguise for scattershot songwriting and/or overblown conceptualizing. Montreal’s Blackguard, however, steer largely clear of the renaissance fair instrumentation, battlefield effects and folky trappings for something that is less garish and more satisfying. With its lush keyboard backdrop, the third album from the former Profugus Morti certainly does have a symphonic quality to it. But that is tempered by the feral vocals of Paul Zinay and the furious pace of most of the material, broken only occasionally by the operatic “Iblis” and the richly orchestrated anthem “A Blinding Light” that recalls more recent Dimmu Borgir. For the most part, though, Firefight gets the point across without laying things on to thick, which makes for a pretty smart battle plan. B

DARKEST HOUR – The Human Romance (E1 Music)
After going back to the rough-and-tumble thrash of old on The Eternal Return, D.C.’s Darkest Hour take a more nuanced turn with their seventh full-length. Produced by Soilwork guitarist Peter Wichers, Romance has a rich, dense sound with songs that build slowly played against those that hurtle out of the gate, like the propulsive “Man & Swine,” “Violent By Nature” and “Your Everyday Disaster.” “Savor The Kill” or “Love As A Weapon,” however, ebb and flow around Mike Schleibaum and Mike Carrigan’s guitar twists and turns, with nifty harmony leads giving way to booming riffs and epic choruses. “Severed Into Separates” goes even further, with its sweeping, almost Iron Maiden-like licks. It’s a best-of-both-worlds approach that here works quite well. B+

THE HAUNTED – Unseen (Century Media)
Since welcoming back original singer Peter Dolving in 2004, Sweden’s The Haunted have essentially become the second coming of In Flames. The fire-spitting thrash of old has grown progressively less, well, fiery. Experimentation and the injection of much more melody and conventional hard rock construction have made things more anthemic and accessible - and ordinary. The title track here is even eerily similar to In Flames’ “Cloud Connected.” Buoyed by much the same, steady pace, the tense verses and rousing choruses of “No Ghost” and “Motionless” quickly lose their punch. The groovier, more rabid “The City” or “Them” do show some moxie, but when Unseen concludes appropriately enough with “Done,” you won’t be too sad that it’s over. C-

HAVOK – Time Is Up (Candlelight)
With the whole rethrash thing having grown pretty boring, pretty fast, Denver’s Havok are a pleasant surprise. Instead of merely mimicking the sound, style and look of the Megadeths and Exoduses of 20-some years ago, Havok use that as a basis for building something new - relatively speaking. Their second album doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it does give it shiny new rims and some fresh treads. Rippers like “No Amnesty” and “Out Of My Way” are insanely fast, and the slashing riffs that are predominant throughout deliver more oomph than the standard chugga-chug - Reece Scruggs’ leadwork is pretty bad-ass as well. With their chunky hooks and gang choruses, “D.O.A” or “Killing Tendencies” do sound a bit rote, but the more raucous “Scumbag In Disguise” and “Fatal Intervention” are right on the money. B

KVELERTAK – Kvelertak (Indie Recordings/The End)
Mixing a thrash-and-roll that recalls The Crown with the rawk swagger of the old Hellacopters or Backyard Babies, the manic sextet Kvelertak are the most exciting thing to emerge from Norway since “Lords of Chaos”-era black metal. Despite its all-Norwegian lyrics, the band’s freewheeling self-titled debut instantly grabs your attention with its inviting, almost pop-like clamor that is played with the balls-out, manic drive of a thrash band. Unpronounceable tracks like “Mjød” and “Sjøhyenar (Havets Herrer)” are at the same time catchy as hell and rock like nobody’s business. Kvelertak’s loose, almost effortless energy is infectious and the playful way they pay homage to Norway’s black metal heritage, as on the sneaky riffing of the opener “Ulvetid” or offering “Sultans of Satan” as their only English title, has a cheekiness that is downright refreshing. A great start from a band that seems destined for great things. A

LAZARUS A.D. - Black Rivers Flow (Metal Blade)
Wisconsin’s Lazarus A.D. may have shed some of the rethrash trappings of their 2007 debut The Onslaught by adopting more of a groove metal approach here, but they still haven’t latched onto something they can really call their own. Black Rivers Flow echoes the chunkier side of Testament, Lamb of God, Pantera and the like, sometimes uncomfortably so as on the very “Walk”-like “Ultimate Sacrifice.” It certainly has more heft, and definitely kicks ass, but its influences are just way too obvious. Even “modern” twists like the big breakdown sections on “Light Up A City” or “Through Your Eyes” are from someone else’s playbook. C-

MERCENARY – Metamorphosis (Prosthetic)
An apt title for the sixth album from these Danes. The lineup here is like a Chinese fire drill version of the one that played on 2008’s Architect of Lies. The singer, drummer and keyboardist left in 2009. New drummer Morten Løwe came aboard soon after, but the band stayed in-house to pick up the rest of the slack, with bassist René Pedersen taking over all the vocal duties and guitarist Martin Buus also handling the keys. While that may complicate the live situation, in the studio it made for a relatively smooth transition. Metamorphosis offers a likable blend of thrash, melodic death metal and power metal, and kneads those ingredients together so that they actually complement one another instead of putting them at odds. “Velvet Lies,” in particular, is especially well done. Pedersen is more than up the vocal challenge, as his clean singing is actually better than the growling he’d been providing before – and which he also injects here, but could probably have done without. B+

SYLOSIS – Edge of the Earth (Nuclear Blast)
Another band battling lineup turmoil, England’s Sylosis return minus former frontman Jamie Graham and with guitarist John Middleton now doing double-duty on vocals. But here, too, the band seemingly come back stronger, with a dynamic, dynamite second album. Though a bit overlong at more than 70 minutes, Earth’s concussive union of Bay Area-style crunch, progressive flair and death metal brutality gets better with every listen. Middleton’s hoarse vocals may be a bit one dimensional, but in a way that helps more melodic or dramatic tracks like “Empyreal” or “From The Edge Of The Earth” keep their edge where more predictable – neh, obligatory - clean vocals would not, as on “Apparitions.” And when the band really let it go, which is much of the time, they can be both dazzling and deafening, which is a pretty good combo. B

TURISAS – Stand Up And Fight (Century Media)
While these Finnish dogs of war certainly deserve props for their evocative costuming and undeniable passion, their over-the-top symphonic folk metal leaves me a bit cold. These guys are from the bigger-is-better school, which is fine if you know when enough is enough. But their third album just keeps piling it on, be it bombastic backing vocals, ornamental instrumentation or overwrought thematics. With all this combined, “Hunting Pirates” just sounds cheesy and the otherwise triumphant “Venetoi! - Prasinoi!” or “End of an Empire” stagger under their own bulk. By comparison, the not-so-extravagant title track, “The Great Escape” or “Take The Day!” are less assaultive and much more enjoyable. Too bad there isn’t more of the same, because with better balance and a bit less ambition Fight could have certainly taken the day. C

VICIOUS RUMORS – Razorback Killers (SPV/Steamhammer)
There’s been a dearth of old school power/thrash metal of late - Helstar, Sodom and Jag Panzer to name a few - but the best of the batch is the 10th studio album from these Bay Area stalwarts. After 30-plus years, and nearly as many members, band leader/guitarist Geoff Thorpe can still rally his troops to kick up a pretty good ruckus. The mid-tempo/ballady material here tends to be a bit overdone and isn’t anything special - though “Pearl Of Wisdom” does end with a nicely emphatic crescendo. But the more adrenalized “Murderball,” “Ax To Grind,” “Rite of Devastation” and “Razorback Blade” hit the mark dead on as the band play with an abandon that belies their years and Thorpe shreds up a storm. Vicious Rumors smartly avoid the temptation of trying to over-modernize their vintage sound, and instead gleefully offer the sort of stuff that sounded great back in the day, and still does now. B+


AGNOSTIC FRONT – My Life My Way (Nuclear Blast)
It’s been awhile since Big Apple veterans Agnostic Front have actually been issuing prototypical New York hardcore - really going all the way back to their 1999 re-emergence on Epitaph. Their 10th album continues in the crossover thrashy vein of their last few releases, with the band’s snub-nosed bludgeon having morphed into brisk, bracing - and consistently catchy - riffs, the shout-out choruses now boasting more than a few “whoa, ohs” and some surprising guitar solos popping up out of nowhere. Roger Miret’s blunt, barking vocals and the tough guy anthemics of “City Street,” “Us Against The World,” “Your Worst Enemy” and “Until The Day I Die” do retain some of the East Coast urban vibe of old, but Agnostic’s sound hints of West Coasters Pennywise or old Bad Religion perhaps more than most purists might like. C+

EMMURE – Speaker of the Dead (Victory)
Thuggish, knuckle-dragging metalcore doesn’t come any thuggier or, um, knuckle-dragging-ier than Connecticut/New York area brutes Emmure. And with their fourth full-length, they continue to set the bar even lower, in a Limp Bizkit of metalcore sort of way. The band string one chest-stomping breakdown after another together for apoplectic frontman Frank Palmeri to scream about solar flares, political conspiracies or fucking cartoon characters over with little regard to musicality or anything else. It’s brutal as all hell, but utterly tuneless, mostly pointless and virtually unlistenable. F

FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND – Welcome Home Armageddon! (Good Fight)
The fifth album from this Welsh melodicore quintet brings back some of the kick of their earlier work, but still retains an unapologetic almost poppy sheen that these days is like a breath of fresh air. Instead of trying to outmuscle and outshout everyone else, these guys keep the vocals mostly clean, the songs crisp and lively – and not soaked in tired emo earnestness - and give it enough crunch so no one’s going to mistake them for Green Day. Tracks like “Man Alive” and “Owls (Are Watching)” even infuse a subtle complexity that recalls old Quicksand or Snapcase to keep things a little off balance. And while a bit more grit might have been nice, I’ll take this over most meat-headed metalcore any day. B

WINDS OF PLAGUE – Against The World (Century Media)
I kinda liked the conceptualized, symphonic black metal spin Winds Of Plague put on their last album, The Great Stone War. But they return more firmly to deathcore territory here with Against The World and the results are disappointing at best. The “Burn this motherfucker down” chorus of “Drop The Match” and “Kill, kill, kill/lock and load” commands of “Built For War,” and their matching jackboot breakdowns, show little of the imagination that at least made Stone War interesting. Instead, Against The World comes off sounding like recycled Hatebreed, with a slathering of Cookie Monster vocals and keyboards. Yawn. D


CROWBAR – Sever The Wicked Hand (E1 Music)
Given guitarist/frontman Kirk Windstein’s commitments with Down and Kingdom of Sorrow, it’s understandable why it’s taken six years for a new Crowbar album to emerge. But Sever proves worth the wait, delivering that signature Crowbar sludge with more verve and a brasher, bigger sound. Though still a bit of a bummer, what with the likes of “Let Me Mourn” and the funereal “A Farewell to Misery,” Sever seems less grim and morose than much of Crowbar’s previous work. While the band’s plodding tempos are almost legendary, they’ve noticeably stepped up the pace here. And with the absolutely thundering guitar work of Windstein and Matthew Brunson, Sever stomps around like Sasquatch through the Northwest woods, bolstered by a production job by Windstein that is nothing short of massive. B+

HAARP – The Filth (Housecore)
The full-length debut from New Orleans’ Haarp has all the hallmarks of the city’s eccentric take on heavy music. You’ll find a Crowbar-like quaking rumble, the quirky rhythms and unsettling overtones of Eyehategod or the former Acid Bath - especially in Shaun Emmons psychotic grizzly bear vocals – and a thick layer of sludge that smothers all. But these guys take it one step beyond. The Filth is as dense and enveloping as anything you’re likely to hear. It’s deliberate, creeping pace, crushing heaviness and Emmons’ horrific aura are like slow death put to music. The continual droning can make things a bit tedious, given that most tracks are seven-minutes plus, but if doom is your thing, it doesn’t get much doomier than this. B

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